Butterfly and the Blight at the Heart of the World
by Lavie Tidhar
On her thirteenth birthday Butterfly received her first tattoo, a bright reproduction of her namesake inked by old man Jingga on her left shoulder-blade.
Old man Jingga’s body seemed to shimmer in the air; his tattoos, so many that they covered over three quarters of his ancient, impossibly-wrinkled skin, seemed alive as if by magic, moving and changing with each tiny motion, every small movement he made.
Butterfly bit her lip and bore each touch of the needle in silence.
On her thirteenth birthday Butterfly heard, for the first time, the voices of the dead murmuring between the trees of the forest.
It was a relatively dry day. The clouds hung low over the canopy of the trees but were yet to coalesce enough to produce rain. Butterfly was on her way back from Jingga’s longhouse, a clean swathe of medical plaster covering her new tattoo.
It was a gorgeous day. They all were. The earth had a rich, almost overpowering smell; a mixture her grandfather said was a product of the constant rot and renewal of the rainforest. Bright birds (Butterfly was never good with identifying species) flew from tree to tree, calling out to the world in their strange, guttural voices.
And then a new sound.
It came and went in waves, like the crashing of seawater against the shores of the island. Her island. A gentle yet insistent murmur that permeated through the forest and wove itself into the conversation of the birds and the swaying of the trees’ leaves.
At first, Butterfly was too engrossed in thought to notice it. She had a lot to think about. Her new tattoo, for one, and the impression it would make. It was common opinion old man Jingga was the best tattoo artist in the archipelago. Then there was the celebration at the longhouse later in the evening; Butterfly walked through the forest with a secret, pleased smile, thinking of the party.
Nungai Merurun was one of the oldest longhouses in the archipelago, and consequently one of the biggest. There would be coloured lights, Butterfly knew, strung all along the long corridor; music--her favourite music--would play the length of it, as each of the families finally finished their evening meal and stepped out into the corridor to join the celebration. The adults would sit cross-legged on the floor and drink Tuak and smoke and talk; everyone would admire her tattoo. Thirteen was a special number, after all. And she was the granddaughter of the Tuai Rumah, the head of the council.
Granddad would be so proud of her.
Butterfly stopped. The sound of the dead washed over her, incomprehensible yet melodic, and she had only now consciously noticed it.
She looked at the forest without understanding. There was a Rogon cocoon to her left, hanging from a keruing tree like the lifeless shell that it was. And yet, although she did not understand them, she knew--and how she knew was nevertheless a mystery to her--that this new sound was emanating from the Rogon, and that it was they who spoke.
She ran the rest of the way home, her feet silent on the bed of rotting leaves.
“The Rogon are dead,” Fat Boy said irritably. “Have been for a quarter of a million years.”
It was late; the party was winding down. They sat outside Granddad’s bilek, his apartment almost in the middle of the long corridor. Fat Boy and Granddad had been arguing.
“You’ve known Butterfly since she was born,” Granddad said levelly. “Do you think she has suddenly gone insane?”
Fat Boy coloured. “She is only a child, Gara! It’s her birthday, she was excited, she imagined the Rogon talk. Children.” He tried to snort but wheezed instead. “You ask me, Jingga’s needles probably had something to do with it.”
“Enough,” Granddad said. He raised his arms, palms open as if to pacify his old friend. Not many people called the Tuai Rumah by his first name.
It was a quiet, peaceful night. The evening rain had stopped an hour before, and now the only sounds were those of the longhouse: the bark of a dog, the low-voiced conversation of the few people still up, and in the distance the sound of a boy being sick over the balcony and the neighing of a goat or two as they ate his Tuak-drenched sick below.
Butterfly sat in Granddad’s lap, listening. From beyond the balcony the sounds of the forest came as distant whispers: Night birds, the rustle of leaves, the occasional sound of a larger animal crashing through the trees. And, fainter still, she could hear the conversations of the Rogon wash over everything like a constant, still murmur.
Fat Boy was looking at her. “Butterfly,” he said, his voice laden with a false, weary patience, “you know the story. How we came to the archipelago, how we settled the islands. We found the cocoons then, strewn all over the forest like the dead fruit of the planet. My own father made it his life work to study the Rogon. I’ve seen the cocoons open, I’ve seen the mummies inside, I’ve seen them dissected, analysed, with every not-inconsiderable tool we have.” He patted her head. “They’re dead. Have been for a quarter of a million years.”
Butterfly knew he meant well. Fat Boy was not good with children, but he was a good man. And he was Granddad’s friend.
But adults have a way of ignoring what they don’t like.
As if reading her mind, Granddad said, “But then, Mutang”--he was one of the few people to call Fat Boy by his given name--“Butterfly also knows the other stories. You know we do not disturb the cocoons. We leave the trees they hang from even when we fell the rest. There have been no Rogon taken down since the time of your father.”
Again, Fat Boy coloured. “Respect for the dead,” he muttered, “does not mean we need to return to the age of superstition.”
Butterfly felt sleepy. She curled herself in Granddad’s lap and the old man, a secret smile playing at the sides of his mouth, lifted her up. “Let’s save the argument for another day,” he said quietly. “I think Butterfly needs to go to bed now.”
“Goodnight, Butterfly,” Fat Boy said.
“Goodnight, Uncle Mutang,” Butterfly said sleepily. She gave him a kiss on the cheek, and Fat Boy smiled. Then she followed Granddad into the bilek.
“Can you still hear them?” Granddad asked as he tucked her in. He brushed her hair with his hand. He sounded--Butterfly only later, much later, realised--more serious than she had ever previously heard him.
Butterfly listened. Closing her eyes, she could still hear the longhouse, a living, ever-changing entity composed of hundreds of people, and she could hear, also, the distant sounds of the forest. In the background, as if from far away, the gentle murmur of the Rogon’s unintelligible conversation like a constant zephyr.
“Are you scared?”
Butterfly had to think about that one. “No,” she said at last. “I was at first, but... they’re just talking. I don’t think they know, or care, that I can hear them.” She pulled the covers tighter, and yawned. “I think they’re nice.”
Granddad was silent for a long moment. Then, “Goodnight, Butterfly.”
She heard his slow, careful steps as he rejoined Fat Boy in the long corridor, and fell asleep still listening to the noises of the world all around her.
On her fifteenth birthday Butterfly received her second tattoo, an intricate, woven pattern of black ink that formed itself into the semblance of a granite dragon down her right shoulder. Old man Jingga’s work seemed only to improve with age; Butterfly admired his wiry shape, on which dolphins and dragons, flowers and trees, coral reefs and landscapes all merged in a blur of motion.
“There,” old man Jingga said at last. He positioned a mirror at her back and stood in front of her with a second mirror, allowing Butterfly to admire his handiwork through the double reflection.
At fifteen, Butterfly was still small for her age; her skin was dark brown, the colour of the illipe nut, and her large, bright eyes burned like a distant constellation of stars.
On her fifteenth birthday Butterfly heard, for the first time, the voices of the dead change as they murmured through the forest.
She had grown used to the voices; their presence was something only half-noticed, as constant and unchanging as the rustling of the leaves and the falling of rain. It was only in the rare times when she left the island, when she was aboard a boat and surrounded by water, that she noticed them, and then only by their absence. Though even in the middle of the Great Ocean, with nothing but water in every direction, even then the faint traces of the Rogon’s enigmatic conversation remained, like the fading of echoes.
Now, something was different.
It was as if a switch has been flicked. The conversation remained, as inexplicable as ever, but the tone had changed. Before, Butterfly thought as she followed the familiar route from old man Jingga’s longhouse to her own, before they have always sounded like kind, distant relatives, as if they were at a family wedding, clutching paper plates in their hands and chattering happily with rarely seen kin.
Now the tempo of that conversation changed, became quicker, louder. It was almost as if something was causing the dead to panic, making them scared.
There was a cocoon on her left; perhaps the same one she saw that day when she turned thirteen. It hung from the keruing tree like a parcel left forgotten. It was small, perhaps a meter from head to foot, and roughly oblong. Its colour was a dark green: the colour of the trees. Butterfly had seen photos at school of the mummies inside, the small, dead bodies of that vanished race the Orang Ulu called Rogon, bestowing the name of their ancient, malevolent spirits on these strange vestiges of alien life.
They were, she was sure, truly dead. Fat Boy was right to say so. And yet... and yet they spoke to each other, and she heard them.
On impulse, she approached the tree. There was something strange about it she hadn’t noticed before. A grey fungal growth formed a narrow band around the keruing’s trunk like a noose. And the colour of the bark was different, the rich brown-green fading--only a little!--but fading nevertheless to that same featureless grey as the fungus.
Her fingers hovered over the fungus. Above her, around her, the voices of the Rogon seemed to drown the sounds of the forest. There was an odd sensation in the tips of Butterfly’s fingers, a kind of odious warmth that threatened to spread through her arms and into her entire body.
She felt frozen, trapped into the spot like a primordial insect in amber.
The sensation emanating from the fungus grew. The voices of the dead rose higher.
Something jerked her up; pain flaring in her new tattoo. Instinctively, she moved her hand to scratch at the pain, and the peculiar trance was broken. The noises of the forest returned; her fingers stopped tingling.
There was no pain in her shoulder.
Suddenly frightened, Butterfly turned her back on the keruing tree and its dead cargo and ran home.
It was a quiet celebration. Outside the bilek coloured lights were strung on the ceiling, snaking onto the veranda. Members of other bileks wished her a happy birthday as they wandered through the long corridor, but this was a family celebration, not a communal one. There was Butterfly, and Granddad, and Fat Boy, and some of Butterfly’s friends; they were watching an old film, a dramatisation of the Orang Ulu’s journey from Borneo to the Asteroid Belt, where the miners at last gathered their forces together and took the long plunge, building in secret the starship that would take them on the long voyage that ended, at last, at the archipelago.
At fifteen, Butterfly could recognise the awfulness of the sets, the amateurishness of the actors; it was shot on the long voyage. She guessed there wasn’t much else to do, if you weren’t frozen.
Nevertheless, the film captivated her as it did her friends. Occasionally, the camera slipped and real images of space would appear, space as it looked from the generation starship. The ship didn’t have a name. They simply called it Nungai. Longhouse.
As Butterfly and her friends watched the film--it was projected onto a simple white sheet strung between two poles--Granddad and Fat Boy moved to the veranda, where they sat talking in low voices. Butterfly observed them: the two old men sat close, their knees almost touching, on two adjacent sides of a bamboo table. Two glasses of Tuak stood, untouched, by their elbows. Fat Boy was puffing on a horrible green cigar.
In the film, the Nungai was about to be launched; it was the boring part, with the families coming onboard longhouse by longhouse and being put into the freezing tanks. It lasted a while, and Butterfly was glad of the distraction when Fat Boy’s voice from the veranda asked her to join them.
“Yes, Fat Boy?”
Fat Boy smiled. “Sit down, Butterfly.” He pushed a chair towards her and she complied.
“Your Granddad tells me something happened to you in the forest today,” he said. “Want to tell me about it?”
Butterfly did, or tried to. Fat Boy’s eyes examined her, almost as if he was seeing her for the very first time.
When she finished, Fat Boy said nothing, but he lost the smile. He chewed on his cigar for a long moment, either forgetting or uncaring it had gone out.
“I’ve been noticing changes in the forest for some time,” he murmured at last. He twirled the cigar between his fingers distractedly. “Some kind of bug, or disease. I don’t know. Something is affecting the trees.”
“Here?” Granddad said sharply.
“No,” Fat Boy said. “And that’s why Butterfly’s story worries me. So far, it’s only the inner islands that have been affected. It’s almost as if this, this--“ he searched for the word--“this blight is spreading outwards, hopping in some way from island to island, making the trees sick.” He took a breath, seemed to discover the cigar in his hand, and fished out a lighter. The cigar flared back to brilliant life. “It’s as if she had an early warning, and that’s something I can’t explain.”
Butterfly smiled at him. “I knew you’d believe me, Uncle Mutang,” she said happily.
“So it’s Uncle now, is it?” Fat Boy said. But he looked like he was trying to hide a smile. “And I didn’t say I believed you, Butterfly, just that I can’t explain your story.”
Granddad looked annoyed, and that worried Butterfly, because he rarely showed signs of irritation.
“Why wasn’t I told about this, Mutang?”
Fat Boy shrugged, palms open. The cigar dangled precariously. “It isn’t a matter of immediate concern,” he said, an apologetical note in his voice. “And, um, it doesn’t seem to affect all the trees.” His black round eyes tried to find a place to look at, finally settled on the table. He looked uncomfortable. “Only trees that carry Rogon cocoons,” he muttered.
“I see.” There was sudden ice in Granddad’s voice; no longer the voice of her grandfather, but that of the Tuai Rumah.
“Butterfly, you’re going to miss the end of the film,” he said, his eyes level on Fat Boy’s face. Butterfly didn’t need to be told twice.
There was a tense silence as she got up to leave. Granddad and Fat Boy seemed locked in a staring competition. Fat Boy was losing. Badly.
“I want a full report tomorrow morning, Mutang. Every last bit of data. In person. You understand?”
Butterfly dawdled on her way out, listening. Subterfuge was unnecessary, however. The two men were, for the moment, oblivious to her presence.
And as she rejoined her friends in front of the screen and the Nungai left the asteroid belt and headed in a final cinematic shot towards the distant stars, Butterfly heard Fat Boy’s reluctant, unavoidable answer.
“Yes, Tuai Rumah. I understand.”
On her nineteenth birthday Butterfly was awakened by the sound of the dead shrieking in the forest.
She lay still for a long while, her eyes open, staring at the ceiling. The sounds of the dead washed over her like puss from a boil that had burst open.
When she could take it no longer Butterfly climbed out of bed and went to wake up Granddad.
In sleep, the Tuai Rumah showed his true age; his lined face looked like a leather mask, a cured hide left too long in the rain until it wrinkled and its colours drained. His bare arms rested on top of the thin blanket; his tattoos, blue-inked images of far-away star systems, distant nebulas and cloud-like galaxies, looked faint in the moonlight. It hurt Butterfly to see him so.
He awoke immediately, his eyes blinking, once, as he regarded her in silence.
“The Rogon are screaming.” Her voice was flat, emotionless. In the two years that had passed, Butterfly’s sleep was often disturbed. Her days were worse.
“It must stop.” Butterfly cut him off. “The blight is spreading. The trees suffer. The Rogon, I think, suffer more. And I, Grandfather, suffer most.”
The old man got to his feet without words. He led Butterfly to the small kitchen at the back of the bilek and sat her down as he silently put water to boil, mixed roots and herbs in a small, blackened pot with a long handle.
He let the tea brew, then served it to Butterfly in a chipped cup. Butterfly wrapped her fingers around it and gulped down the tea.
Silently, he served her more.
“No.” Her tone held a new finality. A new conviction. “No more tea. No more herbs.”
“What would you have me do, granddaughter?” the old man said mildly. “If there is anything in my power to ease your pain, it is yours.”
Butterfly set down the cup with exaggerated care on the table. Her hands shook. “I will go to the source of the blight,” she said in the same flat voice. “And I will fight it.”
The old man regarded her carefully across the table, noting the lines in her face, the tautness of her skin. There were dark circles, as large as moonlets, around her eyes. He sighed.
“In the morning, I will go with you.”
Some of the tension seemed to ebb out of Butterfly’s face. Silent, she pushed the cup towards him, and he refilled it with tea.
“In the morning, then,” she agreed. And then, “thank you.”
She swallowed the second cup with another single gulp. Then she rested her head between her arms on the table and wept.
Morning came, and with it a morning’s rain. Water fell from the sky, each drop as large and heavy as a heart, and as warm. Butterfly and the Tuai Rumah stood waiting on the veranda of Nungai Merurun and watched the rain and the rising of the sun, bright and yellow and heavy on the horizon like a comforting eye.
They turned as the acrid smell of cigar fumes reached them. Fat Boy approached, his heavy body clothed in toughened cloth, rough boots enclosing his feet.
“Come with me.”
They followed him through the long corridor and down the slope. A green-painted jeep waited in a clearing. Butterfly helped Granddad get into the passenger seat and squeezed in besides him. Fat Boy drove.
The road they followed was wide and smooth, though unpaved. They drove through the rain and as they did the forest dwindled behind them until it disappeared altogether, and the sharp smell of the sea reached their nostrils like a sudden promise.
Fat Boy slowed as he navigated his way down to the shore. Crystallized sand stretched like an impossible line to each side of the vehicle. A small jetty protruded from the shore into the water, and beside it a boat. The jeep slowed further, then stopped.
A strange calm came over Butterfly. Here, surrounded by water and barren sand, the voices of the Rogon quietened; they seemed again to be the whispers she had once heard.
“It’ll take a couple of minutes to get the boat started,” Fat Boy said with a note of apology. He shuffled along the jetty and climbed into the hulk. Soon, the sounds of loud cursing mingled with the cloud of cigar smoke that wafted on the sea breeze.
Butterfly walked down the beach. The sun felt warm on her skin, but the breeze carried a cooler temperament with it, raising goosebumps on her bare arms. She looked down at the sand, searching for shells. Her eye caught movement. When she bent down to examine its source, a crab emerged from the sand and threatened her with its pinchers.
“What are you guarding there, little monster?” she said, feeling lighter than she had in a long time. The creature looked at her dolefully, its feelers writhing in the air above its head as if sensing her words. She knew what a crab looked like on that other place, that distant place from which they’d come; and guessed that it was easier to call a new creature with a familiar name. Just as they had done with the Rogon, the sleeping spirits of the forest that were really the carcasses of long-dead alien beings.
The crab seemed to take offence at her words. It rushed at her, suddenly, pinchers aiming for her flesh. With a cry of irritation she kicked sand at it, flinging it on its back.
“What treasure do you keep?” she murmured as she turned her attention away from the crab to the spot it had abandoned.
Something gleamed within the sand. From a distance she heard the boat come alive with a quiet throb of power, and Fat Boy’s yell of victory.
“Oh.” It was only another shell, its occupant long-gone. Thousands of tiny dots covered its smooth, white surface in roughly concentric circles. In the middle of that constellation a larger dot shone with a kind of gold. As Butterfly looked, it almost seemed to change in front of her eyes, and tiny threads of gold began to spread from the centre to the underlying dots, connecting them in a complex, confusing configuration that extended, and extended, until it covered the shell with a blazing of gold light that almost blinded her.
She dropped the shell as if it were a cinder.
“Butterfly?” It was Granddad, calling her. Normality came flooding back, and when she looked again at the shell it was as it had been before, white-smooth and dotted with nothing more than random black motes.
“I’m coming!” she called back, and after a moment’s hesitation pocketed the shell. It almost looked, she thought, like a map of the archipelago, formed, as the islands themselves were formed, of nothing more than nature and time.
For no reason, the thought comforted her. She jogged back to the jetty.
Granddad and Fat Boy were already waiting for her in the boat. Butterfly climbed in, and with a roar that was part engine and part Fat Boy’s shout, they sped away from the island into open sea.
Butterfly dozed in the back seat.
Here, surrounded by open water, the silence was like a balm, soothing her battered brain. Granddad and Fat Boy were talking in the front.
The sound of their voices reached her in snatches, as did occasional sprays of cold, salty water.
“...Punan.” Fat Boy said. “A little uncooperative.”
“Bad business... re-open the research...”
“Dead, Gara. Dead.” A savage note.
“...Butterfly. Blight is real... fear...” she missed the rest.
There was a silence, and Butterfly drifted off. Then, “...be alright. Dig at... relics.” Silence again.
Some time later Butterfly woke up. She felt refreshed, calmer than she had been in months. The sun was low on the horizon.
She sat up and looked around her. They were nearing the heart of the archipelago: here, the islands were denser, grouped together, and the water shallower. The boat slowed as more and more islands jutted from the sea like pieces of jade, and Fat Boy had to navigate carefully. Deep water made way to strange coral colonies. As the boat passed above them Butterfly was drawn to the side of the vessel, mesmerised by the shifting colours of the coral.
Then, as they neared the islands, she sat up suddenly, her mouth tight.
Even from here, the cacophony of Rogon was deafening. Their cries had a more structured feel to them, forming a strange kind of diamond-shaped sound in her mind.
Her hand closed tightly on the shell in her pocket as if hoping for pain to silence the dead. It felt warm in her hand, a gradual growth in temperature that was soon threatening to burn her palm. She took it out and looked at it; the soundscape of the Rogon seemed, momentarily, to mirror the surface of the shell, golden lines again extending from the blazing centre, transcribing an expanding web of light.
She dropped the shell, suddenly furious, and the illusion faded. The noises of the Rogon seemed to mute. The boat, with a lurch, rammed into sand and docked.
“We’re here,” Fat Boy muttered. “Welcome to Kuching Island.” He didn’t look happy at the prospect.
He jumped heavily out of the boat, splashing in the water, and motioned for them to do the same.
They helped Fat Boy push the boat out of the water, until it was firmly stuck in the sand. “We’re lucky not to have any large moons,” Fat Boy said, panting a little from the exertion, and lit a cigar. “My dad always said that. No serious tides to muck up the mooring of a boat.”
“We need shelter, Mutang,” Granddad said. He looked tired, a man no longer used to adventuring and island-hopping. Butterfly was supporting him, just as he was trying to support her. Her headache returned with the pounding of the Rogon’s babble, tenfold what it was back home. “How far is the research station?” she said.
“Oh, we won’t make it to the station today,” Fat Boy said. “It will be what, two, three days’ walk? But when we still worked here we had a post by the beach. I hope we can still use it.”
He led them from the beach, the land sloping gradually upwards, sand turning into low-lying shrubs. They reached a level as the sun was setting.
“Over there.” Fat Boy pointed. In the distance the outline of a building could be seen.
They walked farther, their pace growing slower. Fat Boy was breathing heavily, and Granddad was quiet, his face tight, each step more careful than the last.
Butterfly felt anger and sorrow build inside her, anger at herself for dragging the two old men with her on this quest, sorrow at seeing them so fragile. These men, giants in her youth, had always seemed invincible to her; now she could see the effects of time on their bodies and it hurt her.
When they reached the shelter the sun had gone. Pure blackness settled around them like heavy cloth, with an almost physical touch. The stars blinked in the sky in their familiar constellations, failing to provide them with any illumination.
“We need fire.”
Butterfly went first. In the darkness, she collided with a human figure. She fought, tried to shout a warning as a hand covered her mouth with force. She was thrown on to the ground, another ghostly figure holding her down.
Through the loud beating of her heart she could hear Granddad and Fat Boy struggle then subdued. They didn’t put up much of a fight.
Rough rope tied her hands behind her back. She was pushed up, half-dragged, half-pulled into the shelter.
Someone was starting a fire, and in moments the wood caught and flames sprung up; in the sudden illumination she could observe her captors for the first time.
Granddad and Fat Boy were sat next to each other, close to the fire. Ranged around the room in an arc that began with them and ended with her on the other side were about a dozen men and women. They were small, their skin a dark brown that was almost black. Blue tattoos covered every inch of their nearly naked skin, which was covered only in rudimentary clothes, and they were armed with a curious array of weapons that looked handmade: blowpipes, large machetes hung from belts, more of the rough rope she was tied with, and bliong, sharp axes that reflected the light of the fire.
“Damn you, Punan!” Fat Boy shouted from his place by the fire.
Butterfly looked at him closely. He seemed energised, almost as if he were enjoying the ordeal. “Damn you for your impudence!” His eyes searched the expressionless faces of their captors. “You will show respect due to the Tuai Rumah of the Iban!” At that, there was real anger in his voice.
One of the men, of the Punan, crouched by Fat Boy and looked at him closely. Like Fat Boy, he was quite old, yet his figure, unlike Fat Boy’s, was wiry and trim. They stared at each other for a long moment, unblinking, as if daring each other to look away. Then, a smile spread on the face of the Punan man. “Your girth seems only to grow with your years, Fat Boy,” he observed, his words clear though pronounced with an accent Butterfly had not heard before. “There were tales of a large monster in the ocean--I always suspected it was your corpse, discarded yet so full of gas that it was unable to sink gracefully to the seafloor.”
“You are still alive then, Pek?” Fat Boy said. “Or is it that the earth has rejected your corpulent body, forcing you to go on existing in that wrinkled husk you seem to favour with such appalling tattoos? Untie us.”
At that, Pek nodded. In a few seconds the captives’ bonds were removed, and Butterfly rushed to Granddad’s side.
An odd smile played on the old man’s face. “The Punan have always been unruly,” he observed quietly, “but I had never thought to see them without manners.”
At that, Pek came and sat besides them. The atmosphere relaxed, and the other Punan busied themselves around the room. Butterfly could suddenly smell food and her mouth filled with saliva. She did not realise how hungry she was.
“I apologise, Tuai Rumah,” Pek said. “But these are difficult times. The trees... the trees are dying, and the forest is troubled.” It seemed difficult for him to form the words. “We fear that which we do not understand.”
He rooted in his kit and brought out a bottle, which he uncorked and offered to the old man, who accepted with a nod.
“Is that a reason to attack strangers?” Fat Boy demanded. “You are left in peace by the tribes; none set foot on Kuching. What harm do you think we bring with us?”
Pek’s bright eyes flickered from Fat Boy to Butterfly; for the first time, she had the impression of being examined by him and was made uncomfortable by his penetrating gaze.
“That,” Pek said slowly, his eyes remaining on Butterfly, “is something you perhaps know best.”
“Enough,” the Tuai Rumah said. He took a small sip of the Tuak and passed it to Fat Boy, who took a deep gulp, and then another. “We ask for your help, Pek of the Punan, not your enmity. We, too, are troubled by the forest. We, too, fear that which we do not understand.” He paused, and Butterfly felt his hand rest protectively on her own. “We wish to go to Ba’Lai.”
Pek nodded grimly. “All begins and all ends at the heart of the world,” he said mysteriously. He didn’t seem surprised.
Butterfly realised then, rising from the abyss of exhaustion caused by the walk and the incessant battering of the Rogon, that these old men had dropped into a different way of talking, one more ritualistic and stylised, like men enacting a well-rehearsed play. There were things she did not understand about this journey, borne of her desperation and of the strange visions the Rogon’s voices created in her mind. Something deeper and older, with sway over them all, Granddad and Fat Boy and Pek, and she was not a part of it.
But the time to wonder was not now. They were served food, a stew made of unfamiliar meat Granddad said was of an animal that somewhat resembled a wild boar and that now lived only on Kuching. The Punan, he said, alone of all the tribes of the Orang Ulu, have refused to introduce any earth-stock to the native environment. Butterfly tried to remember what she knew about the island; there was a nagging suspicion in her mind, an uneasiness that grew as she ate, while Granddad and Fat Boy and Pek conversed in low voices. How did she come to be here? She remembered only waking up, and being frightened, and Granddad agreeing to go with her. To the source of the blight, she had said. But was it here, in the island that formed the core of the archipelago’s network of islands? What was it about Kuching? She knew the Punan claimed the island for themselves, shunning all other tribes from encroaching on their land. They lived still as they did back in the old world, hunting with blowpipes, moving from camp to camp, refusing the structure of longhouses and the veneer of technological civilization.
Warmth from the food spread through her body; she had not realised how cold she was before. Her eyes fluttered and threatened to close. The voices of the Rogon, always present, were growing faint. She asked to go to the source, and Granddad and Fat Boy agreed. And now that they were there, they were to go to Ba’Lai, a place she knew nothing of, only that Fat Boy’s father once worked there in his futile attempt to understand the dead aliens.
She heard the concerned voice but no longer cared. Her eyes closed and her mind drifted away, diving deep into a welcome and silent chasm of sleep.
Morning was a brittle awakening.
Butterfly opened her eyes to a room still in darkness. Pale light was only now beginning to grow outside. The Punan were gone, as silently as they had come. Only Pek remained, crouched by the fire where he stirred a pot and carried a conversation with Granddad.
“Granddaughter of the Tuai Rumah of the Iban,” Pek said ceremoniously, turning to her with a tilt of his head. “I apologise for the way you were treated last night.” His eyes searched her face as he handed her a steaming clay mug full of fragrant tea. “The Tuai Rumah has told me of your vision, and your pain. I am sorry to have aggravated it.”
Butterfly inclined her head, acknowledging his apology. The tea burnt her tongue.
“I will lead you to Ba’Lai,” Pek continued. “Beyond that, my knowledge does not extend.” His eyes never left her face; she wondered what he saw there.
“Pek, you old mongrel!” Fat Boy shouted from outside, breaking what was for Butterfly a very uncomfortable moment. “I will hold you responsible for the damage to this building!” She could hear him mutter loudly about “the Punan and their technophobic nonsense.” Pek studiously ignored him.
Butterfly drank her tea.
They left as soon as the sun rose; it lay low on the horizon, emanating the promise of warmth. Rain clouds hung overhead like wet clothing on a peg-line.
They entered the jungle.
Granddad had once shown Butterfly a copy of an old, old children’s book from Earth. In it, jungles were lush tropical flatlands, navigated at ease.
The reality was much different. Jungles are seldom flat; mostly, the land slopes and rises sharply, the trees growing at strange angles. The ground is a bed of compressed, decomposing leaves that make the terrain slippery and finding a foothold difficult. And then there are leeches.
Butterfly heard Fat Boy curse for the umpteenth time, and guessed at the cause. When she turned her guess proved right: Fat Boy held the leech between thumb and forefinger, as far away from his body as possible, a look of disgust on his face. There was a well of blood on his arm. This one struggled before being plucked off.
It was a remarkable creature. The long, narrow body was the colour of a grey fungus, now made blazing red as it filled up with Fat Boy’s blood. Its grey skin was a thin, transparent membrane. The leech pulsated irregularly as it twitched between Fat Boy’s fingers, shaking as if in the throws of a drug.
“Watch this,” Fat Boy said. He pulled out a cigar and lit it single-handedly, exhaling smoke towards the canopy of trees.
“I really don’t think...” Granddad said, but Fat Boy ignored him. Cigar held in his mouth, he dug a hole in the ground with his fingers and dumped the leech inside. Its shaking continued. Fat Boy exhaled one more time, then bent down and applied the burning end of the cigar to the leech’s body.
Butterfly barely had time to cover her face. With a sound like air escaping the leech exploded, Fat Boy’s blood flying away from the small earthen crater in a red cloud.
Fat Boy grinned. “Allergic to human blood, leeches. Most things are, on this island. Punan wouldn’t let anyone interfere with the natural habitat.”
Granddad looked at him and shook his head; but he didn’t say anything. They continued to follow Pek, who was already at the bottom of the ravine.
It was slow going; even though Butterfly thought she was familiar with the forest, this was different. It had not been tamed, adapted, modified, controlled. Unfamiliar thorns, as long as her arm, protruded from thin branches that broke as she tried to grab hold of them, and she often slipped. They had to move from tree to tree, making use of what purchase the branches afforded them, trying to avoid the thorns, the leeches, and the multitude of other life that swarmed, slithered and crawled around them.
Butterfly could have probably handled it well enough, if it weren’t for the keruing trees. They seemed to be all around her, spaced thickly throughout the forest in almost equal spaces. And from each keruing tree hung a Rogon cocoon, dark green and old and seemingly dead.
Her head swarmed; the screeching of the dead escalated in pitch and tempo as they moved farther into the forest. It was overwhelming her mind, creating hallucinations that lasted for fractions of a second and disappeared leaving her feeling on the cusp of some understanding, but which brought no comprehension, only confusion.
Near dark they stopped, by the shore of a river that wound through a crack in the ground and seemed to spiral away into the darkness, reaching out, away from the jungle.
It was a quiet group that rested that night. Pek built a fire, and made a thick, warming stew for them, but it was an effort to eat nevertheless. Butterfly sat shivering by the fire; she was only half-aware of the old men besides her, and she found no energy in her to concentrate on them, on that view. The rest of her was captivated by the Rogon, her mind caught by the voices of the dead as they drew pictures in her mind, strange ring-like formations, a mirage of blinding lights, and something else, too, a sense of something vast and strange and calm, that wafted like an elusive plume of smoke at the back of her head and which finally sent her into a deep, dreamless sleep.
On the third day they reached the heart of the world, and the blight was there, waiting for them.
It was a small hut. There were crude windows cut into the side of the mud walls; if ever there was glass inside them it was long gone. the windows gaped like blind eyes in the round clearing made in the forest. The ground was bare.
And everywhere, there were keruing trees, and cocoons.
Some remained on the dead trees that held them. Others lay in the mud, half-buried, or cracked open and with their mummified occupants staring out with eyes that, like the hut’s windows, saw nothing.
An old jeep lay on its side by the hut, its metal rusted. Strips of rubber remained suspended from its wheels like congealing blood, signaling where once the tyres had been.
“Dad’s little kingdom,” Fat Boy murmured. “I never thought I’d see it again.” There was a strange, wistful note to his voice. His eyes were clouded.
As soon as Butterfly stepped through the ring of trees she felt her mind shift. It was as if a switch had been turned on and light allowed to flood in; or rather, she thought, it was like the absence of noise one had become used to.
She felt the quiet invade her mind, soothing. It held a promise, and an air of expectancy about it, and a hint of laughter. She looked around her as if seeing things for the first time.
A ring of rot had spread out of the hut and into the forest. She could see that with bare eyes. It looked almost like an explosion, the trees closest to the clearing bent back, darkened and dead, their Rogon cargo as lifeless as they were.
“What is it?” she asked, her voice hoarse from disuse.
There was a silence from the old men. Then, “They used to call it the Alien Relic Research Base,” Fat Boy said, still in that strange, far-away tone, “which was a grandiose name for a lone man’s hobby. As kids we called it The Heart of the World. The Heart.” He coughed and rubbed his eyes. “Funny how a place like this can seem so much like home, and so important to a child.”
Butterfly looked at Pek. He had planted his staff in the ground and was watching them with an expression that conveyed, even without words, the message “this is your fault.”
“What happened here?” Butterfly whispered. She knelt beside a broken Rogon cocoon. The green covering had holes in it, and was brittle to the touch. Inside--it was the first time Butterfly had seen one in reality--was a dead Rogon. The face made her sad; the expression of the dead alien was peaceful, yet infinitely melancholy.
“Father,” Fat Boy said softly. “He researched the Rogon. He collected cocoons from many of the islands and moved them here, to study.” He seemed momentarily to collect himself, and his voice grew louder. “But it was a long time ago, Butterfly. It never amounted to anything, and finally we left and returned to Nungai Merurun. Home...”
He sat down. “It was a long time ago,” he repeated to himself.
“Was it?” Pek said. “Yet your father returned here. Alone.”
Fat Boy looked up at him. “We thought he might have,” he admitted, “when he disappeared.” He shrugged. “I’m an old man,” he said unnecessarily. Then, “Where was he buried?”
“He wasn’t,” Pek said. His face softened. “I’ll show you. But be prepared,” he added enigmatically. Fat Boy looked up again, seemed like he was about to speak, then subsided.
He led them to the door of the hut. Butterfly felt Granddad’s hand resting, reassuring, on her shoulder. She followed Pek into the hut.
She noticed charts, maps, ink-faded and hanging limply from the walls. Rotting printouts covered the floor. There was an empty space where a computer terminal would have been.
Only then, after the cataloguing of the hut’s contents was seemingly completed, did she allow herself to register the thing in the middle of the room.
A keruing tree grew out of the dirt floor, its green as dark as pond scum, its branches twisted upon themselves in the confined space. And from the tree hung a cocoon, a Rogon cocoon, pried half-open. From within the cocoon a mummified human face stared at them with a grotesque grin.
She heard Fat Boy cry out behind her. Granddad’s hand tightened on her shoulder.
Butterfly wasn’t frightened. Her awareness seemed to expand again, as if by the act of entering the hut her mind had undergone a final transformation. The silence receded, replaced by a weak chattering that was emanating from the emaciated creature inside the cocoon.
“I can hear him,” she said, though what surprised her, what affected her, was that she could also, for the first time, not just hear but understand.
“Be careful, Butterfly,” Granddad said. He turned to Pek with an angry look. “What is the meaning of this?”
There was veiled irony in Pek’s reply. “I was hoping one of you would be able to tell me that,” he said.
“How long?” Butterfly suddenly demanded. “How long ago?”
And the answer came to her in two, the one like an echo of the other.
She stared at the thing in the tree with unseeing eyes. “You are the blight,” she said.
No blight, the thing in the tree said soundlessly. No blight. The opposite of blight.
“He’s dead, Gara!” Fat Boy said. “Dead as the Rogon. To believe otherwise is madness.” He paced between the walls, clenching his fists. “Look at him!”
“What do you mean?” Butterfly said.
Set them free, the voice whispered. From the heart of the world outwards. Set them free.
“But they are dead,” Butterfly said, uncertain.
“Yes!” said Fat Boy.
No, said the ghost of Fat Boy’s father. Only the bodies are dead. Have you not guessed, child?
It sounded amused.
“Guessed what?” Butterfly demanded. She watched the mummy in the cocoon grinning at her with unseeing eyes.
The cocoons are dead, said the voice in her head. But the trees are alive. The trees remember.
“And the cocoons are their memories,” Butterfly whispered. She could suddenly see it, clear as if the thought was thrust into her head from outside: the forests covering the archipelago and beyond, on the two unsettled continents, and the network of keruing trees growing amidst the forest, a vast and complex web of vital green, absorbing the stored memories of the cocoons and their mummified occupants and talking to each other, talking all the time.
Not a blight, the thing in the tree whispered, but a quickening. a unifying agent.
“The trees?” Fat Boy said. “The trees talk to each other?”
“I think your father tried to influence them,” Butterfly said. “He,” she hesitated, “he mummified himself, in a Rogon cocoon, so that the tree he grew might draw him in, his identity, his memories, so he could communicate with the rest of the forest.”
“He was crazy,” Pek whispered, looking impressed.
You must touch me, Butterfly, the thing in the tree said. You must help me complete them.
There was a desperate quality to his silent voice, and when he was done the silence was complete, as if everything, the trees, the forest, the world, were hanging on her decision, on her help.
“Butterfly!” She felt a hand grab her roughly by the arm. She opened her eyes (she didn’t realise they were closed) and found herself staring at the thing in the tree face to face.
“Don’t touch it,” Granddad said, and in his voice was the authority of the Tuai Rumah. He led her outside, but for butterfly there was no escaping the expectant silence, the desperation of the thing in the tree.
“If it is my father in there, and if he is somehow alive, and talking to you,” Fat Boy said, “then don’t do what he asks you. He was crazy when he lived and I doubt death had the power to change him.”
Butterfly laughed despite herself. Besides her, Granddad smiled. “He was a good man, Mutang,” he said. “He was the greatest scientist we had.”
Fat Boy snorted. “In a culture that wasn’t quite sure what to do with one.”
Butterfly let them bicker. The familiar noises of an old argument comforted her for a moment. She put her hands in her pockets absent-mindedly.
Something dug into her palm. The seashell. She took it out and laid it flat on the palm of her hand.
It glinted in the sunshine, an ordinary shell. Butterfly felt almost disappointed, then relieved.
An ordinary shell. It was her own choice after all.
She didn’t know what she should do. But wasn’t this why she came here to the heart of the world? To find out the source of the blight, to stop the screaming of the Rogon in her ears?
It boiled down to a simple choice: act--or turn away.
And suddenly the choice of action felt like the lifting of a heavy weight, the inability to act that had ruled her these past four years banished. It wasn’t much of a choice, really, when it came down to it.
She ran inside the hut and, before she could change her mind, thrust her hands towards the thing in the tree, until she touched it.
For a moment nothing happened. The thing in the tree stared at her mournfully.
Are you sure? It said.
Behind her, she could hear as if in slow motion the sounds of the three old men as they hurried after her.
Then, like the growth of green light, her consciousness expanded, falling into a maelstrom of chaos in which thousands of voices screamed in the green darkness. Butterfly fought to remain herself, not to be torn apart in the maelstrom, and as she did she felt a presence by her side.
Look from above, the thing in the tree whispered. Butterfly felt a kind of tugging, as if she were being pulled up at great speed, and her vision of the green chaos grew to encompass more and more of it, until it was as if she were standing on top of a giant cliff, looking down into a sea of green.
But it was not a sea. As she watched, green shoots resolved themselves, wound together in complex knots; golden lights flared from them and spread outwards, setting alight the adjoining shoots.
You can see it! The thing in the tree breathed. Look at the complexity, at the magnitude! A giant world-spanning network of intelligences... It paused, and she felt the tugging again, moving her vision further afield, until she alighted on a small dark dot that seemed to pulsate at the centre of the enormous web of gold and green.
The hub, the thing in the tree whispered. The hub that is broken. Or perhaps it was never made.
The thing in the tree released her abruptly. This is where you must go. And then, as Butterfly instinctively resisted the pulsating darkness she was pushed. She felt the thing in the tree’s triumph as she plunged towards the expanding blackness.
If she felt her mind open before, it was but a crack compared to the sensation she had now. The entire planet rose before her, and the complex structures that the Rogon formed on it like a diagram. They were on all the islands, on the two continents, even in the ocean, where they assumed a bluish kind of green. They grew everywhere, and the green shoots all connected, and the light flew between them like liquid gold.
But it was not reaching its destinations. For in the middle of all the structures, all the webs, the black dot in the heart of the world remained empty and dark, taking into itself the gold light but releasing none of it back. It sucked the Rogon’s communications and disrupted them.
“It’s you!” Butterfly cried towards the thing in the tree.
No! it denied. I did not cause the corruption. I think it has always been there, almost as if it were designed. No, the thing in the tree said in determination, I only tried to fix it. To let them free. Its voice seemed to sigh. Truly, the thing in the tree said, death is no escape to some species.
“What must I do?” Butterfly said. But even as she spoke the words she perceived the answer.
Go deeper, said the thing in the tree.
And Butterfly reached deeper into the darkness and enveloped herself in it as if putting on an unfamiliar coat.
A third time her consciousness opened, a third time her mind seemed to swell until it might explode. The darkness engulfed Butterfly until it became her; or, perhaps, engulfed her so completely that Butterfly became the dark.
And into the dark the light flowed.
Gold shoots flooded her; the sounds of the Rogon poured over her, an intricate, complex web of information. Her mind filled with an abundance of strange images: Rogon, small and humanoid and alive, walking the paths of the forest; she saw them retreat into themselves, into the trees, and sensed somehow a vast, alien influence at work. Then the forest receded and she was watching a vast desert populated with shimmering, ethereal beings, and knew she had left the planet of her birth entirely, and far-away; and then a shift again, and she could sense vast, dark beings in the emptiness of space, that spoke in riddles and were as ancient as the universe.
Her mind fought against the invasion of images, began to sort them, to push them away from her. As if from far away she heard the thing in the tree cry in triumph as the black dot at the heart of the world burst and gold came flooding out of it, completing the web of the Rogon.
You’re doing it! It cried. Butterfly felt herself drown in an ocean of molten gold as the forest came alive around her, no longer individual but an immense, singular entity that shouted joy at the sky as it began to spin, faster and faster, as the mind that was the forest of Rogon strove to escape the confines of its material prison.
She felt herself crushed under the immensity, the alienness, of this new entity, and as the web of Rogon was at last completed that singular mind simply disappeared, as if it were never there. Butterfly sank into the emptiness and the silence as if into a long, welcome slumber.
On her twentieth birthday Butterfly awoke in her bilek in Nungai Merurun, to a sun that warmed her brown skin, to the scents of the forest, fresh after rain, in her nostrils, and to the silence of the Rogon all around her, a silence that filled her with momentary joy and just as momentary a bout of crying, before she swung herself off the bed and went, at last, to rejoin humanity.
This story was first published on Friday, September 3rd, 2010
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